Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Republic on the Isis?

Palace for committees?
Photo by ell brown
Over the past couple of weeks, Somerville has been conducting interviews for a new Treasurer, to oversee the college's finances and physical fabric. As with interviews for academic jobs, the candidates’ timetables include plenty of time to have coffee and lunch with current members of Governing Body (i.e. the committee of Tutorial Fellows and top college officers which is the sovereign decision-making body of any Oxford college). Over Greek salad, quiche and chocolate tart we’ve had the chance to chat about our work, about the everyday life of the college, and the character of Somerville. In particular, I’ve found myself trying to explain how the college’s governance functions. I sometimes think the best analogy is an early modern European one – that Oxford colleges, and indeed the University itself, are best understood as a Renaissance republican city state, perhaps 15C Venice.

When I started teaching the Renaissance Special Subject some 5 years ago, I gained a slightly better understanding of how Oxford's hugely complex governance works, at college and university level. In Renaissance Venice and Florence, the republican liberty of citizens (academics) was of paramount importance - freedom from external domination/occupation (government) and freedom from internal tyranny (powerful administrators?). This liberty was embodied in the Grand Council, or Venetian assembly, a body perhaps akin to Congregation, Oxford's famous 'parliament of dons'. The Venetians tried to defend their liberty by creating a fabulously complex structure of overlapping committees - a system designed to be so baffling that few could grasp it (let alone dominate it), where some committees were genuinely powerful and other only appeared to be so. To prevent chaos or statis, there was a Doge - officially only a ceremonial figurehead with strictly limited authority, but in practice often the only person who understood the system, and who was able to provide leadership. In this kind of republic, power was everywhere and also nowhere. I don't know what last week's candidates, with their diverse career backgrounds, made of our explanations of Governing Body. Living in a republic, in a consensus- and committee-driven system, can certainly have its frustrations. But, like 15C Venetian patricians, I've come to agree (on most days!) that these are ultimately a price worth paying for liberty.


  1. I'd rather not have to deal with it---I think the color of the couches can be decided without my input. I could use more time for what I was trained to do and actually like to do. :) Most of those meetings leave me feeling a strange combination of anger and boredom. Besides, in the past 5 years, I have spent most of the time being the single dissenting 'vote' or one of the few dissenting 'votes' (for lack of the correct term) on just about all of the non-unanimous decisions, so it's hard for me to feel that there is liberty making up for all the other stuff.

  2. Sitting on committees in college and Faculty/Department is horribly time-consuming, I agree, and some of that precious time is spent talking about things which feel trivial. I suppose that that 'tax' on my time is ok, because in alternative systems where people on high are telling you what to do, with little consensus or discussion, the ultimate impact on my research and wider academic activities would be much more malign...